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I gave up my Unlimited Data Plan. (And Survived.)

John Federico

I swore that there were only two reasons that I'd stay with AT&T as my wireless carrier:

  1. My thousands of rollover minutes and;
  2. My grandfathered, unlimited data plan for iPhone

This past week, I proved myself wrong on both counts.

Here's why.

My son will be 11-years old in November, going into the 5th grade. We were determined to make him wait until middle school before we allowed him to get a mobile phone.

This past Winter, he learned to ride his bike and met some great friends right around the corner.

Suddenly, my wife and I found ourselves calling parents all over the neighborhood: "Is he at your house? Is he out with your kids? Do you know where they are?"

More often than not, my wife or I would have to schlep around the block to try to find him in order to get him home for dinner/a shower/bed.

I thought about setting up walkie-talkies (I have a set that I use while mountain biking with my friends) but realized that he would never use it and that they have only limited range.

After much consternation, we accepted that the obvious answer was to get him a mobile phone.

But.

I couldn't see getting him a Feature Phone (you know - the ones with keys that sometimes flip open...) - he'd never bother learning how to text with it, especially since he's been using iMessage on his iPod Touch.

So, in my home office, I have a bin of items destined for sale on eBay and one of them was an unlocked (carrier agnostic) iPhone 3G.

I thought that this was perfect: it's too slow to play games or mess around with apps, but perfect for texting and making phone calls - and he wouldn't have to learn how to use a different interface.

So, as an AT&T customer, I popped-in on their web site and learned something quite annoying: you can't have a smartphone on their network without a full-on data plan. In other words, if you want to use your smartphone as simply a phone, they wont' allow it.

Fine. I'd show them.

After shopping around, I found a pre-paid plan with T-Mobile that provided unlimited data and 100 minutes of calling for $30.

Perfect.

The only caveat? It runs on T-Mobile's 2G network.

"No problem", I thought. "I don't want him surfing the web or using apps anyway, and when he does, it'll be slow." (Insert Evil Laugh here.)

After almost two months, I discovered the downside to this strategy: T-Mobile (nor any other carrier) is maintaing their 2G network. In fact, they're freeing up this spectrum so that they can use it for 4G+ services. (I knew this, but had yet to experience it firsthand.)

The result? He never got our texts, he never got our calls and he rarely checked-in proactively because he hardly ever had a signal. (Our neighborhood is notoriously bad for wireless service.) And, of course, he's a boy, pre-occupied with riding his bike and hanging out with his friends, so the last thing he wants to do is call his parents and have them tell him to come home.

Now, the visit to the AT&T web site was not a complete loss: I remembered that they were selling iPhone 4 devices for 99 cents and…they offered a Family Plan for voice and data.

I did some more research, made a phone call and (if you can believe this) gave up my iPhone Unlimited Data Plan. (My wife's, too.)

Gasp - Why would I do such a thing?! That's like living in Manhattan and giving up your 212 area code!

After some analysis, it was a pretty easy decision.

1) I jump on wi-fi whenever I can. I hate a slow connection and don't want to become one of the unlimited data users who get throttled by AT&T.

With the latter discomfort in mind, I also use Onavo Extend which compresses data to help reduce bandwidth usage on your wireless plan.

As a result, I barely use 1.5 GB a month - even when I travel.

My wife uses about the same. So, between us, we typically use less than 3 GB of data per month.

2) An iPhone 4 is practically FREE on AT&T. 99 cents for the best iPhone ever designed? Sold. (My favorite iPhone is still the iPhone 4S, even though I upgraded to the iPhone 5.)

Plus, I can use the "Find My Friends" app to know where he is at any time. (Insert Evil Laugh here. Again.) That app won't run on an iPhone 3G.

3) The AT&T Mobile Share Plan. It offers 6 GB of shared data and unlimited local and long distance calling each month.

Total cost for three iPhones? $195 - less than I was paying for two iPhones with "unlimited" data, 700 minutes of calling per month and unlimited calling using the 3G Microcell.

Oh - you want to add a new device, like an iPad? $10 per month. Tethering? $15 per month.

This is fine for my wife who will occasionally need or want to connect her laptop to her phone in order to answer work-related email.

For me, not so much: I prefer to stick with my Verizon Pre-Paid iPad data plan. This provides me with 2 GB of data per month for $30 and can be used as a wireless hotspot - perfect for when I travel and don't want to pay $15/day for hotel broadband.

Plus, as @ehackney recently pointed out, this gives us "carrier diversity".

For example, during Hurricane Sandy, his local AT&T tower came down. If not for his Verizon 4G MiFi, the downed tower would have left his family without any way to communicate with people. Thankfully, he was able to get a Verizon signal and use Skype on his iPad to connect with friends and family and to get disaster updates.

So, how do I feel about all this?

Fine, I guess. OK, maybe a little antsy.

We switched plans just three days ago and my son's iPhone hasn't arrived yet. Since that time, my wife and I have each used about .1 GB of data.

How much data will my son consume? Well, it better not be much, since he can't use it during school and most of his friends don't yet have phones.

How much data will my wife use when she tethers her laptop? Again, not sure since we've never actually measured it.

Worst case, for each 1 GB of data used over the plan limit, we'll pay $15. If we do it frequently, there's a 10 GB Family Plan for $120/month, but I hope we never need it - I'll be mourning the loss of my Unlimited Data Plan, if we do.